Hell Anxiety & Attachment Theory
Krispin Mayfield is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Portland, OR. He has written for CT, Aletiea and Boundless. He is currently working on a book that will seek to understand evangelical theology through the lense of attachment theory research. You can follow him on twitter @K__Mayfield
Attachment Theory is a psychological theory of development that demonstrates that connection is one of our deepest human needs; it’s a drive stronger than hunger, sex or protection. This isn’t surprising as we are who are made in the image of God who triune and at core relationship.
Our natural proclivity is to reach out and rely on those closest to us. If we experience repeated disconnection without appropriate repair from those we care most about (such as a baby crying, but rarely being held), we develop alternative coping methods. One primary strategy is to become anxiously preoccupied with trying to remain connected. If we are preoccupied with maintaining connection (rather than being able to trust that our caregiver will be there for us), it limits other activities such as learning, exploring the world, and managing our emotions. Another primary strategy is to give up on connection, and focus exclusively on tasks, staying busy enough to distract ourselves from this deep need for connection.
When we learn experientially that we cannot maintain healthy connection, we either believe there is something so wrong with us that it causes abandonment, or that our caregiver is untrustworthy. Sometimes we believe both.
Unsurprisingly, research has shown that often (especially after some time in the church) our attachment strategies deeply impact our relationship with God. Often these beliefs about self and caregivers exist in the right part of the brain, which is where our deep experiential life is processed. These experiences of chronic disconnection can prevent us from feeling safe with and close to God. I believe that evangelical theology on hell as it is commonly taught makes it difficult to resolve issues of insecure attachment with God.
Let’s consider someone who believes I am rotten at my core, (or as a popular worship song says, “there’s nothing good in me”), which one attachment psychologist described as feeling “revolting and untouchable and that her selfishness is a deformity that makes her unfit to live among other human beings.” If one has such a low view of self, it is incredibly difficult to to trust that they will make the right choices in order to be saved. What if one morning I wake up and decide I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore? I’m not a good person, so that doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. This can cause hypervigilance, as the person tries hard to read their Bible, study apologetics, continue praying -- anything to keep their faith strong. They become anxiously preoccupied with maintaining connection with God for fear of being abandoned to hell. This is a vastly different experience than than peace the surpasses understanding described in Philippians. Furthermore, anxiety engages our fight/flight brain, actually reducing our ability for empathy, kindness and other characteristics of living in the Kingdom of God.
C.S. Lewis’ hypothesis of hell is often referenced: “The damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; the doors of hell are locked on the inside… They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.” For many people experiencing addiction, this only further confirms hell anxiety. Ask anyone who has experienced addiction, and they will tell you that they are quite capable of making decisions that are contrary to their actual well-being. For those who have a overwhelmingly negative view of self, they may believe, if there are people who lock themselves in hell, I could certainly be one of those people. Rather than peace, they feel worry.
So often an individual’s preoccupied attachment strategy is confirmed, rather than replaced with a secure attachment to God. They try, with white knuckles, to do the right things to stay connected and close to God. Afterall, salvation is not about works, but about relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, we try so very hard to maintain that relationship, anxiously worrying that we are doing enough to maintain our relationship with him. Attachment theory calls this “proximity seeking behavior,” and in people with anxious attachment, they become so focused on staying close that it becomes difficult to learn, explore, see others’ needs, or grow in other ways.
The experience of anxious attachment is one of feeling defective and therefore being unable to trust that you will be loved just as you are. It is an experience of deep shame. Brene Brown has described shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” This definition parallels the doctrine of hell that I grew up with: “I am flawed [sinful] and therefore unworthy of love and belonging [hell as ultimate disconnection from relationship].” It only perpetuates shame, and adds confusion. You should both expect to be abandoned because you are so horrible, and you should expect to be loved because God is so loving. In attachment psychology, consistent double-bind messages have been proven create difficult barriers to developing and maintaining safe relationship.
For those who have difficulty trusting caregivers, the existence of hell also makes it difficult to trust God. Rather than resolving the issue of trust, it has the potential to deepen it. The possibility of being sent to hell resonates deeply with the experience of being uncared for and unloved, and can also create anxiety. If eternal separation and torture exists at all, what’s to keep me from being the recipient of such punishment? Recently, CT published an article highlighting some research on hell anxiety. It identified that those with an external locus of control were more likely to experience anxiety regarding hell. This means those that who worry about hell tend to be people who feel powerless to control their own life. It’s important to notice who, in society, is more likely to experience absence of agency: this tends to be people who have been put in positions of powerlessness, including childhood abuse or structures of oppression. This means that marginalized people and traumatized people are significantly more at risk for hell anxiety. This should give us pause.
If the gospel cannot resolve prior fears of being punished and abandoned, but instead further confirms them (something that has been demonstrated in research regarding self-esteem and theological instruction), then it is is not truly good news. If our theology on hell does creates and sustains fear we need to question either the theology itself or the nuance with which it is being presented. We need a theology of hell that fosters safe and secure attachment to God, not one that furthers our anxiety.
Becoming Attached, Karen, 1994.
Handbook of Attachment, Cassidy & Shaver, 2010
The Whole Brained Child, Seigel, 2011
The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk, 2014
“God Image as a Function of Self-Esteem and Locus of Control. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,” Benson, P., & Spilka, B., 1973.